L.E. Modesitt, Jr., is one of science fiction and fantasy’s bestselling and most prolific authors. Since signing his first contract with Tor in 1983, he has written over 60 novels, moving between science fiction and fantasy, 18-book epics and standalones. The fantasy worlds he dreams up tackle issues of balance between order and chaos, harmony with nature, and the sociopolitical ramifications of magic-users on society and culture. What’s more, each series features a different, detailed magical system and painstakingly constructed millennia-long timeline of its history. Modesitt also likes to jump back and forth by generations or even centuries within his series, strengthening the fibers of those fictional histories with new stories.
His latest novel, The Mongrel Mage, starts a new story arc in his long-running Saga of Recluce series—if you’re itching to learn more about the world of Recluce, or Modesitt’s other fantasy universes, read on!
The Saga of Recluce
The Magic of Recluce | The Towers of the Sunset | The Magic Engineer | The Order War | The Death of Chaos | Fall of Angels | The Chaos Balance | The White Order | Colors of Chaos | Magi’i of Cyador | Scion of Cyador | Wellspring of Chaos | Ordermaster | Natural Ordermage | Mage-Guard of Hamor | Arms-Commander | Cyador’s Heirs | Heritage of Cyador | Recluce Tales | The Mongrel Mage
The most important thing you need to know about Recluce—both the saga and the island—is that there is a neverending battle between chaos and order. In their natural state (a.k.a. Balance), these qualities make up all matter; but as white wizards unleash the entropy of chaos and black mages harness the structure of order, these forces become imbalanced. Modesitt’s intention was to subvert fantasy tropes by having the “good guys” wear black, though, as he points out, there is a lot more gray area to it—and not just the “grays” who can manipulate both chaos and order. Even as the first book, The Magic of Recluce, establishes Recluce’s tenets of uniformity and repetition in order to keep chaos at bay, such monotony—even with the safety it provides—bores protagonist Lerris. His lack of engagement with order gets Lerris sent away from home on the dangergeld, or ritualistic journey to learn more about the world before deciding if he will follow Recluce’s rules. But ennui aside, what we’ve learned from all of the dystopian fiction that has been released in the 25 years since the first Recluce book is that order can be just as dangerous as chaos.
While Lerris’ dangergeld is the focus of the first book, he is by no means the series’ protagonist; in fact, each of the characters in the 18 books to date get only one or two novels. In a recent piece for Tor’s Fantasy Firsts series, Modesitt challenged the notion that The Saga of Recluce is a series, considering that they neither follow one protagonist nor take place in “a single place or time”—instead spanning 2,000 years, and the rise and fall of empires worldwide in 20 countries on five continents. And even then, he adds, “the Recluce books aren’t really a ‘saga,’ either, because sagas are supposed to be tales of heroism following one individual or family. And that’s why I tend to think of the Recluce books as the history of a fantasy world.”
The internal chronological order is also vastly different from the publication order—if you’re going by timeline, the series starts with 2001’s Magi’i of Cyador and concludes with 1995’s The Death of Chaos. Modesitt says it’s the reader’s choice to read the books in either order, or neither, the only caveat being that one should read the first book of a certain character before going on to the second.
In Ames, Iowa, Anna Meadows is fairly ordinary: middle-aged wife and mother, small-time opera singer and professor of music. But in the mystical land of Erde, song is the key to mastering ancient sorcery. As volatile as any other magic, a wrong note could mean disaster; but no one in the kingdom of Defalk is as skilled as Anna, who can sing the perfect note under even the most dire conditions. Not only must Anna learn her way around this unfamiliar world to which she has been transported, but she must also learn this magic while contending with the patriarchal society that wants to wipe out this fledgling sorceress.
In a 2012 interview with Far Beyond Reality, Modesitt described what is unique about his work, pointing to the Spellsong Cycle for a particular example:
In a phrase—the unobviousness of the obvious. My work almost always points out or shows by example something that underlies society or culture or science—something basic that has seldom, if ever, been noticed for what it is—that is so obvious that, once it is pointed out, critics and others way, “Oh… that’s so obvious.” […] The Spellsong Cycle explores the issue of power by making vocal music the heart of magic—and shows why something that is universal [singing] and should theoretically be a widespread source of power cannot be, because true singing is not what people think it is (nor is it as easy as anyone thinks, except for trained singers).
Hailed as a feminist fantasy series, the Spellsong Cycle presents an independent heroine unwilling to give up her freedom for marriage, who rises through Erde’s patriarchal society as first a head of state and eventually the most powerful sorceress on the continent. Even as The Shadow Sorcereress trades Anna’s perspective for that of Secca, her adopted daughter, Anna’s influence is keenly felt: Secca inherits her mother’s position as Sorceress Protector of Defalk and must grapple with many of the same personal and ethical dilemmas that Anna did, from marriage to misogynist sorcerers.
The Corean Chronicles
Like The Saga of Recluce, The Corean Chronicles depicts the ongoing conflict between two different cultures and the fallout it has on their world. But instead of chaos and order, both Alectors and (some) humans possess Talent, a magic derived from life force. However, the series shares with the Recluce books the themes of finding harmony with nature and balance between different groups. The first trilogy takes place millennia after a devastating magical event that ended a golden age of prosperity and progress in the world of Corus. Instead, humans fight among other countries as well as with the Alectors (their human-like caretakers) to eke out survival. The second trilogy jumps back in time to provide a new perspective on the Alectors and a greater context for Corus’ history and fate.
In a 2010 interview, Modesitt summed up the magic system of The Corean Chronicles:
That’s a take-off on what one might call Earth magic. Basically it’s the Aegean concept of the world has a planetary life force and those who have talent can draw on it. But life force varies, obviously by the amount of life in a given area, etc., etc., etc. And you can draw on it too much. And basically you’ve got two races on this planet, one of whom has this tendency to exhaust all the life force on a planet by building great things and imbuing them with life force and literally leaving planets dry and hopping to another planet. […] And then there are the locals who are stuck there and who may be left with a dead planet on which it’s rather difficult to survive. And you’ve basically got the conflict between two cultures, and the locals don’t even know that that conflict exists for the most part.
Corus was the first of Modesitt’s fantasy worlds to include supernatural creatures: the strange animals created by the world’s magic, as well as the fairy-like Ancients, or Soarers. Both are dependent on Corus’ life-force-generated magic for energy. Though they are small in number and appear infrequently, the Ancients—Corus’ original inhabitants—interject themselves into the Alectors and humans’ matters when it is necessary to their survival. One of the humans to which they appear is Alucius, the protagonist of the first trilogy: Taken off his family’s Nightsheep farm and conscripted into the Militia, he is sold into the slave army of the immortal Matrial, who seeks to conquer Corus. But even as he is magically bound to the army, Alucius possesses a secret he was warned never to reveal: a strong Talent, and a compelling reason to use it.
The Imager Portfolio
With The Imager Portfolio, Modesitt went “looking for a different kind of magic”: Drawing upon his attempts to be an artist in his youth, he came up with the idea of visualization magic, in which imagers pluck visuals from their imaginations and make them real. Merchant-turned-journeyman artist Rhennthyl’s training is derailed when his master patron is killed and he discovers that his true talent is as an imager—in fact, he’s one of only a few in the world of Terahnar who possesses the power. However, this realization is bittersweet, as Rhenn is forced to leave his family behind for the solitude of imager training: He is both feared and vulnerable, as imagers can accidentally conjure objects from even their dreams, and because he has enemies he doesn’t even know about who would keep him from attaining full proficiency. Not to mention that half of all imagers die before they reach adulthood.
The Imager Portfolio examines what kind of society would be supported and constrained by such powerful magic-users (Modesitt described it as “literally emerging into what I would call early Industrialism from something like a Renaissance culture”). The series examines economics and politics, and the philosophy behind them, a recurring theme in Modesitt’s work; in a 2011 interview, he said, “The use of economic and/or sociopolitical themes in fantasy and science fiction, to me, is one of the best reasons for reading the genre.” While Modesitt has considered writing a follow-up to the first Imager trilogy—potentially focusing on Rhenn’s daughter—he explained that that would have to wait until after he wraps up his current writing projects.
This article was originally published in December 2016, and appeared again in July 2017.